Science Fiction Studies

#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999

Wendy Pearson

Identifying the Alien: Science Fiction Meets Its Other

Nicola Griffith and Stephel Pagel, eds. Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction. Overlook Press (212-965-8407), 1998. 375 pp. $26.95 hc.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick begins her Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: U California P, 1990)—one of the seminal texts in the development of what has come to be called "queer theory"—with the assertion that "many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth-century Western culture as a whole are structured—indeed, fractured—by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition" (1). She adds that any attempt to understand modern Western culture "must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance" (1), insofar as that attempt fails to take into account "the centrality of this nominally marginal, conceptually intractable set of definitional issues to the important knowledges and understandings of [this] culture" (2).

The editors of Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction, Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel, begin their own introduction by making two assertions which suggest, as I will attempt to demonstrate, an interesting, if not direct, relationship to Sedgwick’s assertion of the importance of the homo/hetero-sexual binary to contemporary culture. Griffith and Pagel’s fiction anthology, a companion volume to their similarly-titled collection of fantasy stories, brings together work by a diverse assortment of writers, some of whom identify themselves as gay or lesbian, some of whom make note of their heterosexuality, and some of whom choose to make no assertion at all about their possession of a "sexual identity."

The purpose of the anthology, however, is quite overtly to explore the intersections of an understanding of sexuality—one that presupposes the very homo/heterosexual divide Sedgwick identifies as central—with a specific understanding of the nature of sf itself. In the editors’ own words,

we wanted the writer to imagine a different landscape. The difference could be one of time, or place, or attitude.... It just had to be some milieu that had not happened. That milieu then had to be combined with one of science fiction’s major preoccupations, its most enduring theme, which is that of the Alien, the Not-Self, the Other. (9)

This "objective," as defined by the editors, had to be combined, by the writers, with one rule: "that the Other had to be a lesbian or gay man" (9). Having defined this combination of objective (the creation of a different landscape) with rule (the inclusion of a lesbian or gay Other), the editors note, parenthetically, what is perhaps the central thesis of the collection as a whole: that in modern Western culture, the experience of people who are sexually different is that in "a largely heterosexual society we are, after all, often treated as aliens" (9).

When Griffith and Pagel go on, immediately after noting the association between sexuality and Otherness, to note that the authors of the stories collected in the volume often "interpreted liberally" the rule mandating the inclusion of a lesbian or gay Other, the implication is not so much that some authors defaulted by assuming a master narrative of heteronormativity, but rather that some of the stories transcend the specific notion of sexual identity that adheres to the words "lesbian" and "gay" in order to bring into view the importance of the homo/heterosexual definition to our understanding of human sexual ontology. In some cases, the different landscape becomes a landscape that is not structured by this definition; in others, the focus is on the implications of a landscape in which sexual identity is central to one’s sense of being even if it is often imposed upon one by others.

One of the central themes of these stories is that it is rare for someone to choose the status of Other, that one does not usually wish to be an alien; however, what is revealed in some of the stories is that Otherness is not always constructed along expected lines. Sometimes that sense of self/Other crosses boundaries, reveals peculiar fractures in an apparently seamless landscape. In Charles Sheffield’s "Brooks Too Broad for Leaping," the reader is primed for a particular kind of landscape by the editors’ introductory paragraph, which quotes Sheffield on the common suspicion of the general public towards both gays and the military and suggests that the story provides "a look at how things might be if the military were exclusively gay" (163). One of the interesting elements of the story is that the gayness of its young protagonist, a man who has abandoned a military career after the death of his partner, is not immediately apparent; the reader is well into the story before learning that Jeth Mylongi’s partner was a man.

The story operates on several levels: on the one hand, it works well as a highly ironic commentary on the US military’s current "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy towards gays and lesbians. It also deconstructs populist assumptions about the nature of same-sex attraction. For example, both Mylongi and the other ex-Service person he hooks up with, a young woman, are chased out of small towns, on the semi-colonised planet on which they’re been discharged, for talking to young people—in Mylongi’s case, a teenage boy, and in Verona Skipsos’s, a young girl. The readers’ expectation is attuned, by our own cultural assumptions, to see these expulsions as a result of the families and towns defending their young people from the dangers of exposure to homosexuality—sort of an off-world "Save Our Children" campaign—yet in both cases, the protagonists are talking to the youngsters about military service. Of course, in this landscape, there’s no difference.

The final—and very nice—irony of the story comes when the protagonists, having had painful, expensive, and illegal operations to make them into perfect replicas of teenagers, re-enlist—and are caught doing so. But rather than exposing and dismissing them, the military welcomes them, unofficially (of course), as mentors and potential partners for new recruits who have lost their friends and, perhaps, been disowned by their families for joining up. Without being in the slightest bit obvious about it, the story neatly dissects the notion that the military is a masculine enterprise unsuited to both women and gay men, since the latter are always assumed to be effeminate. The implication is that courage, perseverance, and camaraderie are not, as we assume, gendered traits and that homosexuality may be an asset, not a hindrance, to the military. Another common theme of several stories is the influence of religious ideology on the treatment of gays and lesbians. Kathleen O’Malley’s "Silent Passion" examines the dilemma of Joshua, a researcher on the planet Trinity who discovers that his alien research subjects—the bird-like and intelligent Grus—have more in common with him, both in their willingness to love and in their acceptance of same-sex relationships, than the rigid fundamentalists of his own biological family. When Joshua and his lover, Ray, adopt an orphaned Grus baby, they assert the importance of love, rather than genetics, in defining a family.

Both genetics and religion come together in Keith Hartman’s "Sex, Guns, and Baptists." This exploration of the all too probable consequences that might ensue if a "gay gene" is ever identified certainly serves to clarify Sedgwick’s assertion of the centrality of the homo/heterosexual difference to our cultural consciousness. Here Catholicism becomes a sign of gayness, because the Catholics have remained unbending on the practice of abortion, which in this landscape has become an even more polarizing social issue due to the ability to identify potentially "gay" fetuses. As the gay private investigator points out to his female client, "[t]he Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t like abortions. But it really doesn’t like homosexuals" (14).

When the narrator does what he’s been paid to do and exposes his client’s Baptist husband-to-be as a closeted homosexual, she’s also able to overcome her scruples about the sixth commandment: she tries to murder her fiancé. When the narrator foils the attempt, she then tries to kill him and, finally, she tries to avoid paying her bill. While the story is actually quite funny, the narrator, despite believing that the woman has a right to know if she’s about to marry a gay man in hiding, is left with the sense that, although he’s followed all the rules, nothing he’s done has been right. The reader is left asking if any of the narrator’s actions—doing his job, saving "the damsel in distress" (25), exposing a fraud—make sense in a world that has little problem murdering gay fetuses. The story thus, on the one hand, exposes the naive assumption made by some gay scientists that a genetic basis for gayness will end prejudice and, on the other, that sexuality is the one essential basis for identity.

Several of the stories in the anthology interrogate the problem that some things—and people—cannot be seen and some things cannot be said. L. Timmel Duchamp’s "Dance at the Edge" investigates the problem of visibility. Despite the necessity for homosexuality to exist in order to create heterosexuality, since every "self" must have its Other, lesbians tend to exist only within the heterosexual imaginary, since they are invisible in "real life." Duchamp’s story examines the problem of a society’s consensual agreement to blindness—and the concomitant necessity for one group that is allowed the peculiar and secret privilege of seeing what nobody else can, even though what is unseen is perfectly visible. The allegorical use of a physical landscape—the "edge"—to represent sexual marginality neatly recapitulates in fictional form much of the theoretical work around visibility that has taken place within the last decade or so.

Nancy Johnston’s "The Rendez-vous" slyly plays two narratives of the invisible and the unspeakable against one another. Written in the flatly factual style of a journalist or a science reporter, "The Rendez-vous" purports to tell the story of a female Canadian alien abductee, Jeanetta (Netty) Wilcox. Interspersed in the report are quotations not from Wilcox herself, but from her estranged husband, Willard. Netty, it seems, has begun to behave extremely oddly: being tired and listless, falling asleep during the day, and losing interest in the housework. This behavior is unexplained until her husband wakes to find her driving away from the house one night; checking the odometer, he discovers the mileage matches the round trip distance to a reported crop circle location. Voilà: a UFO abduction is clearly the cause of Netty’s problems.

The second section of the story consists of transcripts from a hypnotherapy session intended to recover Netty’s lost memory of her abduction. The transcripts tell a story that works well on two levels—one obvious to the astute reader, the other the perfectly flat and utterly naive interpretation of the hypnotherapist, the husband, and, ultimately, the UFO researchers. The story ends with a one-paragraph epilogue, in which these researchers report that Netty and Wilcox’s marriage has ended, that Netty has moved to Toronto "where she lives with her companion Ms. Alice Sharpe" (109), and, finally, that they are "deeply inspired by her spirit of cooperation" with the UFO investigation: her conviction "that ‘the truth will out’ has been, for us, an unwavering bright light" (109). The report cannot speak of Netty’s lesbianism and her husband will not see it, preferring instead to conclude that she has been abducted by aliens—as, indeed, she has.

There are twenty-one short stories in this anthology, each one of which sheds some light on the contested question of how we live in a world that views lesbians and gay men as the Other, as aliens. Given the way in which the criteria for the stories was constructed, it is not surprising that quite a few of the stories take an ethnic model of sexual identity for granted. Yet the breadth and depth of the stories, the fractures and discontinuities revealed once they are assembled, reveal that sexuality is not easily accounted for within an epistemology that allows for only one axis of difference—that is, the sex of the object of desire. The differences among the stories are, in this sense, as valuable to our understanding of sexuality as are the things they have in common.

Nevertheless, the one true commonality, the very one Griffith and Pagel seek to reveal in the anthology, remains axiomatic of our understanding of what it means, for those of us who are lesbians or gay men, to be aliens in our own culture. Without us, the rest of you would have no meaning—but the naming of us as Other that gives you meaning is imposed on us, as it is also on heterosexuals, by the sociocultural conventions under which we live, in exactly the same way as is the particular axis of difference that privileges the homo/hetero divide above all other sexual differences. So we are left in the queer position of embracing a sexual identity that is not chosen (in either an essentialist or a constructionist sense), while at the same time we may wish, either through narrative or through theory, to contemplate the potential for deconstructing the very definition that makes us what we are. Or, as Sedgwick has said, while

there are certainly rhetorical and political grounds on which it may make sense to choose at a given moment between articulating, for instance, essentialist and constructivist (or minoritizing and universalizing) accounts of gay identity, there are, with equal certainty, rhetorical and political grounds for underwriting continuously the legitimacy of both accounts. (27)

Lesbians and gay men have become less alien in the world of sf in the last little while; we have, indeed, experienced a minor boom in the publishing of stories of "alternative sexuality," including Nicola Griffith’s own lesbian sf novels, Ammonite (1993) and Slow River (1995). Despite this, we remain aliens within that world in many of the same ways that our characters are aliens within those stories. And yet the work we do, in interrogating issues around the understanding and construction of sexuality in late twentieth-century Western culture, is of crucial importance, not just to ourselves but, as this anthology demonstrates, to everyone. For whether we adopt a rhetoric and politics of gay and lesbian identity or a rhetoric and politics of queer postmodernism, and whether we do so on the basis of political pragmatism or of faith, the very telling of these stories calls into question the assumptions that make us alien in the first place.

[Editor’s Note: Too late for review, another important theme anthology arrived that converges with the concerns of Griffith and Pagel’s book: Flying Cups and Saucers: Gender Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Debbie Notkin and the Secret Feminist Cabal for Edgewood Press (<booksales>). The volume gathers stories that either won or were short-listed for the James Tiptree Award, given annually since 1991 to acknowledge sf and fantasy fiction that explores issues of gender in an innovative way. Authors represented in the book include Ursula K. Le Guin, Carol Emshwiller, James Patrick Kelly, and Eleanor Arnason.—RL]

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